Deadline looms for Sussex Tech JROTC program

GEORGETOWN – A deadline is approaching for the Sussex Technical High School’s Junior Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program, which will likely close at the end of the current school year if instructional command is not secured.

With JROTC instructors Maj. Ben Jester retiring at the end of the year, and 1st Sgt. Timothy Spence having recently resigned, the school district faces a tentative March 9 deadline to hire qualified candidates as replacements, the district announced in a release last week.

“After being informed of the pending departures of Sussex Technical High School’s JROTC instructors, the Sussex Technical School District’s senior administrators have been working for the last three weeks to find a path forward to keep the U.S. Army JROTC Raven Battalion. Officials last week resolved key student scheduling issues which had been a potential obstacle,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, Sussex Tech was informed this week that no eligible instructor candidates have expressed interest in teaching in Delaware.”

According to Sussex Tech Superintendent Stephen Guthrie, Tech’s JROTC dilemma came to light in mid-January when Sussex Tech principal Dr. John Demby told him that JROTC and Sussex Tech’s new program of work-based learning experiences might be in conflict.

The learning initiative, part of the district’s vocational/technical education commitment in its revised strategic plan, requires students to leave the school campus for part of the school day.

That, however, does not adhere to JROTC protocol, which requires JROTC access to cadets during the school day.

According to the Sussex Tech statement, “school officials last week resolved key student scheduling issues which had been a potential obstacle.”

However, as of Thursday, there were no instructional candidates as replacements. Sussex Tech plans to continue working with JROTC Cadet Command over the next month to identify candidates, the district stated.

Mr. Guthrie said Tech’s JROTC will carry on through the remainder of the 2019-20 year.

“Maj. Ben is going to retire at the end of this year, and 1st Sgt. Spence has already resigned to look for other opportunities,” Mr. Guthrie said. “So, we have one instructor left for the 110 cadets we have.”

The district says it faces a deadline for two reasons.

According to Tech’s statement, “The first is for Tech students. If the program closes, staff needs to schedule replacement courses for our JROTC cadets for the fall semester. Waiting too long means course requests for that slot may not be able to be accommodated. Additionally, current cadets should have sufficient time to be allowed to choose to return to their home districts, which may offer JROTC to complete their training.”

The second deadline the district states “is the need to begin disposing of U.S. Army equipment and materials used in the program, requiring prompt action. There are strict procedures for the return of the equipment to the United States government, which one of our retiring instructors has agreed to handle if necessary. Waiting too long would mean this process would be in the hands of Sussex Tech staff with no expertise in these complex regulations and procedures.”

“We would run the program through the rest of the school year. We would have to go through the process,” said Mr. Guthrie. “We have got a lot do to shut the program down, most importantly is that we have to take care of students for next year. I want to make sure the students that have applied to come here know that we wouldn’t have a JROTC program. The timing of making sure we can do it the rest of year really has to do with the over $100,000 worth of military equipment that is here for the program that we do not own. That is federal government property. We have to go through all of the paperwork and processes.”

During the Feb. 10 Sussex Tech board of education meeting, several parents of Tech’s JROTC cadets pleaded with the district to find a solution and keep the award-winning program intact.

At that board meeting, Maj. Jester shared his reasons for recommending closure of school’s JROTC program.

Work-based learning that requires seniors be gone from the campus for at least half of their school day as well as juniors flighted into the work-based program would greatly diminish battalion leadership, a key foundational component of JROTC, Maj. Jester said.

Additionally, Mr. Guthrie said the cap legislators put on Sussex Tech dropped school enrollment from over 1,500 to 1,250.

Decreased enrollment would negatively impact the JROTC program and place it in jeopardy of the 100-cadet minimum, as required by the federal government, Maj. Jester said.

“If they don’t hit 100, the first year you go into probation,” Maj. Jester said at the Feb. 10 board session. “The second year, it’s not going to get any better and you’ll be dismissed as soon as you do the open enrollment. They (federal government) will not fund the rest of the program.”

Mr. Guthrie said the possibility of switching the JROTC program to another branch of the U.S. Armed Forces exists but is highly unlikely.

“That question has come up a couple of times through social media: ‘Why don’t we switch programs?’” Mr. Guthrie said. “Yes, that is certainly a possibility, but not in this time frame. You have to make the application. You have to go through an evaluation period. Having done this in other districts it sometimes can turn into a multi-year process. They also look to see what other Navy or Air Force or Marine ROTC programs are around. Eventually that could be a possibility but not in a three-month or four-month time frame.”

Mr. Guthrie said several people have expressed interest. “The only thing we can do is send them over to the JROTC Army site to go through the application and their vetting. The only thing that would prevent action on the (March) 9 is either the ability to recommend for hiring or the possibility that someone is in the pipeline, who the Army is comfortable with,” Mr. Guthrie said. “

At this point I don’t have any indication if any of that is going to come true. I know they have told us repeatedly there is just no one in the pipeline. So, we’re hopeful but I am not optimistic at this point. I would hate to lose the program.”